Following public outrage about surveillance in other countries, Germans are asking how much access their own intelligence services have to private communications. Not as much as they would like, it seems.
In 2010 the German Federal Intelligence Service (BND) gathered around 37 million e-mails, text messages and other telecommunications data. According to a report by the parliamentary watchdog, around 10 million of these messages fell under the heading of "international terrorism."
Since then, however, the number has dropped to a fraction of that amount. In 2011 the BND intercepted 2.9 million electronic messages; in 2012 this dropped again, to 900,000. The messages checked were not only those containing certain keywords: telephone numbers and IP addresses that fell under suspicion were also monitored.
It is the BND's job to acquire information in order to identify and ward off threats to Germany's security. It investigates terrorist plots, the illegal arms trade, people smuggling and drug trafficking. The intelligence service has to abide by strict laws when conducting any kind of surveillance, and is subject to supervision by a special committee of the German parliament.
Michael Hartmann of the opposition Social Democrats, Gisela Piltz of the junior coalition partner, the Free Democrats, and Hans-Peter Uhl of the Bavarian sister party of the governing Christian Democrats, the Christian Social Union, are three of the 11 members of the parliamentary watchdog in the Bundestag. The three are keen to reassure the public that Germany is not turning into a "Big Brother" surveillance state.
In recent years the watchdog has been given greater authority. It is authorized to interview all secret service agents, has access to all files, and can intervene if things are not being done according to the rules.
The three members of the committee point to the dramatic decrease in the amount of telecommunications data collected since 2010 - a consequence of improvements in surveillance techniques.
Privacy protected by the constitution
Michael Hartmann admits that the BND still throws its digital net wide, but emphasizes that collection of data is neither random nor unlimited. "Messages or phone conversations are only analyzed if there is concrete suspicion of criminal activity," he says. Hartmann insists that the BND would never spy or eavesdrop on countries that are Germany's allies.
Hans-Peter Uhl points out that it is forbidden for the BND to tap the phones of German citizens, either at home or abroad, unless there are concrete grounds for suspicion. "Should they eavesdrop on a foreigner in conversation with a German citizen, they have to erase the conversation," he says. This deletion process is documented, so the data protection supervisor is able to check it really was carried out.
The watchdog members highlight the fact that a court order is required before any phone tap can be instigated. They acknowledge that personal privacy is a highly-valued commodity for everyone living in Germany, and that it is enshrined as such in the constitution. Whenever there is a question of the German intelligence services being allowed to do something which might infringe on this fundamental right, control measures must be put in place by a supervisory committee, the so-called G10 Commission, which supervises all invasions of postal, telephone and Internet privacy.
According to the German parliament, in 2011 the G10 Commission authorized Germany's three intelligence services - domestic, foreign and military - to carry out 156 such infringements, limited to a maximum of between three and six months each.
Making surveillance public
German law also states that once an operation has come to an end, the person who has been under surveillance, or the object of a wiretap, has to be informed. This can result in official complaints, which are dealt with in public proceedings. At the last count, administrative courts in Berlin and Cologne were dealing with 16 such cases.
"We have a list of these complaints and follow them up," says Gisela Piltz. "I don't have the impression that the intelligence services are in general doing things illegally."
In the past, representatives of the intelligence services have repeatedly attempted to persuade successive governments to allow them more extensive access to Internet and telephone data. They argue that it is essential if they are to be effective in countering terrorists and criminals using modern methods.
However, many of these requests have been denied: as, for example, when they wanted to be allowed to stockpile large amounts of data for possible future use, even if there was no concrete suspicion at the time of collection. The Constitutional Court rejected the application, and a law allowing it that was briefly in effect between 2008 and 2010 had to be repealed as a result.
An EU Commission guideline would now permit Germany to store telecommunications data for up to six months. So far, however, the justice minister has refused to adopt this into German law. The EU has instigated legal proceedings. Requirements for telecommunications providers to save data for longer than six months so that they can be made available to the intelligence services have also, so far, not been implemented.
Rolf Tophoven, director of the Institute for Crisis Prevention in Essen and an expert on terrorism, says the secret services should not rely too heavily on the technical analysis of telecommunications data. "The results that are relevant to the intelligence services are very modest compared with the mass of data in the information gathered," he says.
The parliamentary watchdog has even put a figure on this. It reports that out of 2.5 million e-mails analyzed by the BND, only 300 contained material relevant to their investigations.
Tophoven believes that the BND needs to employ more specialists in analyzing data and assessing a situation - if possible, on the ground. "The modern terrorist is radicalized in secret. He slips under the radar of the intelligence services and their high-tech computers," he explains, giving the perpetrators of the Boston marathon bombings as an example.
Since the recent revelations about the extent of the United States' surveillance program, there have been fears that Germany's intelligence services may also be spying on its citizens more than previously admitted. However, Tophoven believes this is unlikely - and not just because of strict regulation: "The Germans don't collect data that extensively because they don't have anything like the personnel or the technical and financial means to do so."